Carrie Tiffany, Mateship with birds (Review)

Mateship with Birds (Courtesy: Pan MacMillan)

Book Cover (Courtesy: Pan MacMillan)

Carrie Tiffany is on a roll. Last month her second novel, Mateship with birds, won the inaugural Stella Prize, and this month it won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction at the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. It has also been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award. Many bloggers* have already read and reviewed it so, once again, I’m the last kid on the block, but I have finally got there.

Like her gorgeous first novel, Everyman’s rules for scientific living, Mateship with birds is set in rural Victoria in the past, this time, the early 1950s. Its central characters are the lonely, gentle dairy farmer, Harry, whose wife has left him, and his also lonely neighbour, Betty, who has brought her fatherless children to the country and who works in the local aged care home. The novel takes place over a year, a year that is paced by the life-cycle of a kookaburra family which Harry watches and documents in the spare righthand column of his old milk ledger. These notes, which are interspersed throughout the novel, are delightful and poetic, albeit brutal at times:

They work in pairs
against a fairy wren.
Dad buzzes the nest,
the wren throws herself on the ground
to draw him away.
She pluckily performs her decoy
– holding out her wing as if it is broken.
A small bird on the ground
is easy picking.
Club-Toe finishes her off.

They also provide commentary on the main story which is, as you’ve probably guessed, a love story. It is, however, no traditional romance. The boy and girl, Harry and Betty, are well past their youth and are cautious, given their previous experiences of love and relationships. They reminded me a little of Kate Grenville‘s rather dowdy protagonists in The idea of perfection. They care for each other in all sorts of practical ways: Betty cooks meals for Harry and tends his health, and Harry looks out for Betty and her children, fixing things when he can. A sexual tension underlies all their interactions – over many years – but it’s not openly expressed.  (“When he’s invited to tea he leaves immediately the meal is finished, as if unsure of what happens next”). Harry gradually takes on the role of “father figure” for Michael. However, when Michael becomes interested in a girl and Harry decides to pass on some “father-son” knowledge (“an explanation of things – of things with girls? Of … details of the workings”), including some rather specific physical advice regarding women, Betty is not impressed.

It sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it, but there’s something about Tiffany’s writing that makes it feel fresh, original. Part of it stems from her particular background as a scientist and agricultural journalist. Again, like her first novel, she grounds the story in her knowledge of farming life, but not in so much detail as to be boring. Rather, her descriptions give the novel its underlying rhythm – the landscape and the creatures inhabiting it (the kookaburras, owls, magpies, and so on); the milking; the driving into town; the way country neighbours help each other out; the sense of life going on regardless of the little dramas, the kindnesses and the cruelties, that occur. The writing is evocative but has a resigned and rather laconic tone that fits the rural setting.

Although a short book – a novella, really – it’s richly textured. There’s the main narrative drive which flips between Harry and Betty and includes flashbacks to their past, occasional dialogue, gorgeous descriptions (“The eucalypts’ thin leaves are painterly on the background of mauve sky – like black lace on pale skin”), and lists of plants, animals, medications, and so on. Interspersed with this main narrative are Harry’s kookaburra log, Betty’s notebook, Little Hazel’s nature diary, and Harry’s letters to Michael. And all this is layered with imagery involving mating, mateship, birds and humans. You can imagine the possibilities that Tiffany teases out from these. It’s all carefully constructed but doesn’t feel forced. It just flows.

In other words, this is a clever book, but not inaccessibly so. It’s generous, not judgemental. It’s also pretty earthy, with regular allusions to and descriptions of sex. If I have any criticism, it’s  in the persistent references to sexuality. At times, I wanted to say, “ok, I get it, sex – in its beauty, carnality, and sometimes cruelty and brutality – is integral to life” but I kept on reading because … of the writing. I love Tiffany’s writing. I mean, how can you not like writing like this description in which Harry compares Betty to Michael’s girlfriend Dora:

Not like Betty. His Betty is heavier, more complicated. Betty meanders within herself; she’s full of quiet pockets. The girl Dora might be water, but his Betty is oil. You can’t take oil lightly. It seeps into your skin. It marks you.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeI also kept reading because I wanted to know what it was all about. Why was Tiffany writing this particular story, I kept thinking. For some reviewers (see the links at the end), it is primarily about family, for others it is about the relationship between men and women, but for Tiffany it’s about desire. I can see that it is about all these things, but here’s the thing, the book starts with the description of four attacks by birds on humans followed by a description of cockatoos damaging crops. This, together with the sexual imagery, the frequent references to animal behaviour and to humans’ relationships with animals, suggests to me another theme to do with the nature of life, with the nature of our relationships with animals, and with how we accommodate the animal versus the human within ourselves. I’ll give the final word to the birds:

Mum, Dad, Club-Toe
break off their
preening,
squabbling,
loafing,
to attack.
They lose themselves in the doing.
I struggle to tell them apart.
Knife-beaked,
cruel-eyed,
vicious;
there is no question
they would die for the family
– that violence is a family act.

This book packs a punch!

* You may like to read the reviews written by Lisa (ANZLitLovers), John (Musings of a Literary Dilettante), Matt (A Novel Approach) and Kim (Reading Matters).

Carrie Tiffany
Mateship with birds
Sydney: Picador, 2012
208pp.
ISBN: 9781742610764

Nancy Cato, All the rivers run, Book 1 (Review)

It’s been a long time since I reviewed an audiobook or, more accurately, reviewed a book via its audiobook version. As I’ve said before, I don’t listen often to audiobooks, but last month Mr Gums and I did a long drive and so decided to listen to Nancy Cato‘s All the rivers run. I referred to this novel a few Monday Musings ago, because it was one of Australia’s early, successful adaptations for television.

Enough introduction though, time to talk about the book. Our audiobook contained the first book* of Philadelphia (Delie) Gordon’s saga. It starts her story when, in 1890 at the age of 13 she is orphaned in a shipwreck off the coast of Victoria. She is taken in by her dour aunt and more welcoming uncle who lead a spartan prospecting life at Kiandra in the Australian Alps. When her uncle Charles strikes it rich – that is he finds a large nugget of gold – the family (with her cousin, Adam, who is three years older than she) move to a sheep farm on the Murray River not far from Echuca. This first book, which is pretty much a coming-of-age story, finishes when Deli (as she prefers to be called) leaves home at the age of 17, after a tragedy has struck the family.

This is not really the sort of book I would normally read, though it is the sort of book I’d listen to on audiobook. Why so? Well, at the risk of being called a literary snob, I tend not to read sagas (whether they be historical fiction, fantasy or whatever). This is because their focus tends to be plot rather than style, structure, theme and, even perhaps, character development, though I know aficionados will argue with me and they will probably be right (to a degree!). Anyhow, there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not what I prefer to read. However, such stories are perfect for listening to in the car. Literature requiring intense concentration is not a safe bet when you are driving (or even when you are navigating). Horses for courses, as they say.

Cato’s book, like good historical fiction, captures the social history of the era well, particularly the tail end of the gold rush, the 1890s depression, life along the Murray River for the pastoralists and paddle steamers, the challenges faced by women in a male dominated society. She also touches on the dispossession of the indigenous people, showing the women working as “house-girls” for the pastoralists and their all too often descent into prostitution, often as the result of being used by and bearing the children of their white male bosses. Cato was, apparently, an active campaigner for indigenous land rights as well as for conservation.

I enjoyed Cato’s vivid descriptions of the landscape. The plot is a little predictable and the characters are somewhat stereotypical – the welcoming, easy-going farmer, the tough wife, the handsome son champing at the parental bit – but not so much that they don’t engage. Delie in this first book, for example, is a believable young girl, orphaned and taken in essentially by strangers and then experiencing her first love. She’s bright but not brash, independent but not without uncertainties.

I enjoyed one little description in particular. At a moment when things are going wrong for Deli, Cato writes that “a pair of kookaburras laughed sardonically”. I liked this description because only recently I’d been thinking about the first white settlers in Australia and what they made of the birds here, many of whom can sound pretty raucous. I wondered, in particular, what they thought when they first heard a kookaburra’s “laugh” as we describe it. Sardonic, is a very good description of it!

Overall then, it’s an enjoyable read, if you enjoy historical sagas, are interested in life in country Australia in the 1890s – and particularly if you have a long drive ahead of you! You could do way worse …

Nancy Cato
All the rivers run: A river not yet tamed (Audio CD)
Read by Kate Hosking
Bolinda Classics
6 hrs 15 mins on 5 discs
ISBN: 9781742336732

* Note: As far as I understand it, the three books in the trilogy were originally separately published as: All the rivers run (1958); Time, flow softly (1959); and But still the stream (1962). Recent editions, however, combine the three novels into one volume titled All the rivers run. I am not sure where the title A river not yet tamed comes from, but it looks like it might be Bolinda’s title for the first part of their recording of the trilogy.

Jeanine Leane, Purple threads (Review for Indigenous Literature Week)

What I especially like about Jeanine Leane’s book, Purple threads, is how well she draws the universal out of the particular. That she does this is not unusual in itself. After all, this is what our favourite books tend to do. The interesting thing about Purple threads, though, is that the particular is an indigenous one. Even as I write this post my mind is flicking back-and-forth between thinking about the indigenous themes in the book and the more universal ones about family and relationships. More on that anon. First, I want to say a little about the book’s form, because ….

I’m not sure whether to call Purple threads a novel or a book of connected short stories, except I don’t think it matters much. What is significant is that the stories revolve around a mostly female-only indigenous family living on a small piece of land in the Gundagai area of New South Wales in the 1950s to 1960s. The main characters run through the whole book, and the stories are told pretty much chronologically. There could even be a plot line or two, but they are not strong and are not what drive us to read on. This form had an eerie familiarity as I was reading and I realised it was because it reminded me of another David Unaipon Award winning book I have reviewed here, Marie Munkara’s Every secret thing. Is this a coincidence – after all, there are similar books by non-indigenous writers – or should I go out on a limb and wonder whether this form reflects an indigenous way of story-telling? In addition to this similarity in form, these two books share a particular style of humour. Munkara’s is probably more belly-laugh, and is definitely more gut-wrenching, but both have a self-deprecating element, a willingness and ability to laugh at themselves, to see the absurd. It’s a form of humour we also see in Alexis Wright‘s Carpentaria. Okay, enough of that, back to the book itself.

The stories are told first person by Sunny (Sunshine) who lives with her sister Star, and her grandmother, Nan, and aunts, Boo (Beulah) and Bubby (Lily). Her mother, father, grandfather, more aunts and uncles, and others in the community, also appear in the book, but these five named characters are the focus. They are well differentiated. Nan is the down-to-earth matriarch of the group who doesn’t know how to read but “sure as hell know[s] how ta think”. Boo is independent and feisty, the one who takes action when action is needed. She loves the ancient Romans, particularly Empress Livia “who knew how to work behind the scenes”. Bubby, on the other hand, is the gentle, romantic one, who loves Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights. The stories chronicle the first two decades of Sunny’s life in this female-dominated household. There are anecdotes about walks with Aunty Boo, about spoilt Petal (Sunny and Star’s mother), and about interactions with neighbours, teachers and others in the community. Most of the stories are light, albeit with a good degree of bite, but some are dark, such as the story of the young white neighbour, Milli, who is regularly beaten by her husband. This story, in fact, forms a minor plot line in part of the book.

The universal themes are about the way families comprise different and sometimes conflicting personalities and yet manage to love and support each other to ensure their joint survival. The particularity, though, has to do with being indigenous, with being lesser, in a rural community. Leane handles this cleverly, using, for example, the Christian symbol of “the black sheep” throughout the book to tease out the ironies and complexities packed into this idea when it is played out in a sheep-farming community. The symbol is explicitly introduced to us in “God’s flock” where Sunny talks about going to church and being taught the story of “the black sheep”:

‘ … But Jesus, if we pray to him [the priest says], will find all the lost sheep and return them to the fold, even the black sheep that no one  else wants or loves.’

At least this bit made sense to us. Apart from Jesus, we didn’t know any other sheep farmer who loved black sheep. Most hated them, in fact. That’s why every year my Aunties always ended up with a few black lambs to raise ….

Leane shows how Nan and the Aunties navigate life in a world where “black was not the ideal colour” and in which “women livin’ by themselves are always easy targets”. They navigate it with dignity, often by pretending to go along with white society’s ways while staying true to their own values, which involve respecting and caring for other people and creatures and for their little bit of land.

Purple threads, apparently drawn from Leane’s life, provides an engaging but uncompromising insight into a life most Australians know little about. I hope I’m not being too pompous when I say that we need more books like this, and they need to be read by more people, if we non-indigenous Australians are to have a chance of truly appreciating the experience of being indigenous in our nation.

Read for ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, for which Lisa has also reviewed it.

Jeanine Leane
Purple threads
St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2011
157pp
ISBN: 9780702238956

(Review copy supplied by University of Queensland Press via ANZLitLovers blog giveaway. Thanks Lisa. Thanks UQP)

* I have assumed copyright permission for this cover on the basis that the book was provided by UQP

Willa Cather, My Antonia (Review of eNotated edition)

Portrait Willa Cather 1936

I am a Willa Cather fan, and have read some of her novels and short stories, so was intrigued when eNotated Classics offered me an eNotated version of Cather’s My Ántonia for review. eNotated? That sounded like something worth exploring so, although I’ve read the novel before, I decided to read it again. I wasn’t sorry. It’s still a wonderful read.

My aim here is not so much to review the book, though I won’t be able to resist saying a little, but to explore this eNotated edition that I read on my Kindle. I understand from the website that eNotated Classics produces books for the Kindle, the Nook and iBooks. The company’s aim is to take “advantage of eBook technology to extend and enrich books in a way that increases understanding, engagement and reading pleasure”. Did they achieve this aim for me? That is the question!

I’d say yes and no – and will explain by discussing what I see as the three main components of the eNotated version.

eNotation links

These are underlined text (words or phrases) that you click for added information, which can be dictionary-style definitions, brief encyclopaedic-like descriptions, or interpretations. The eNotations can also be read as a group by clicking a single link at the beginning and end of each chapter, and they appear at the end of the book. In fact, the novel finished at the 77% mark in the book, with the last 23% comprising the eNotations and other material.

I was disappointed that many of the eNotation links contained the same information that the Kindle dictionary contains. Since the latter is faster to access by simply moving the cursor to the word to be looked up, those eNotations were rather superfluous. However, perhaps this depends on the dictionary the e-reader accesses, making the experience different with different e-readers.

There were a few of the more interpretive style and I appreciated those. One concerned the relevance of the play Camille which the narrator Jim sees with Lena. This sort of notation can be useful to students who may not, for example, know the play.

A useful feature is their identification system, which comprises a bracketed number at the end of each paragraph and each eNotation, making them easy to cite and to find. The number is obvious as you read, but you soon get used to it.

Theme indications

Now this one bothered me somewhat. See what you think: here are the first lines of the novel as they are presented in this eNotated version:

Last summer I happened to be crossing the plains of Iowa (TIME) in a season of intense heat, and it was my good fortune to have for a traveling companion James Quayle Burden – Jim Burden as we still call him in the West.

Throughout the novel sentences or phrases are treated like this – formatted in italics followed by (TIME), (NARRATOR) or (ELEGIAC). The “How to read this book” section at the beginning of the book explains that these italicised passages are cited in the relevant theme essay – Time, Narrator or Elegiac – at the end.  These are not really “themes” in the literary analysis sense: “Time” is a theme but “Narrator” relates to voice, and “Elegiac” relates to tone. I did find these a little intrusive and wonder whether they would have been better handled as links to the essay they occur in without the bracketed upper case word to show the way.

Additional information

At the end of the book are several items designed to add value. Most of these are not unique to e-Books. They are the eNotations (which you can click on to go back to the text), the three theme essays, a History of Nebraska, a Willa Cather Timeline, a Key Event Timeline, a Bibliography and Images. These are all useful value-adds. I liked the fact that the 12 images can be enlarged, something I can’t do with maps and images in the travel guide I bought last year. It was fascinating to see an image of a Dugout house in Nebraska, though photo credits next to the captions would have been good.

I’m not a Cather expert, but I found the Theme essays interesting – and expect they’d help both students and general readers. The bibliography is short and looks useful, though the most recent citation is dated 1987 which seems a little old. The novel might be a classic, but scholarship continues …

And now to the book itself

How do I love this book? Let me count the ways! I love its meditation on the past, on how the past intrudes into the present. Jim Burden is, really, “burdened” by his past. He meets Antonia when he is a 10-year-old orphan arriving in Nebraska to live with his grandparents, and she a 14-year-old Bohemian immigrant arriving with her family to settle there.  They end up on neighbouring farms and become friends when her father asks Jim to teach Antonia how to speak English. The novel then follows the next 30 or so years of their lives – the first four “books” cover 10 years from the novel’s opening, while the last “book” jumps to 20 years later. Jim, the narrator, keeps an eye on what happens to “my” Antonia over the years, but the book is as much about him and his inability to move on from the past. He says near the end:

In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.

 I love its language and tone. It’s delicious to read. I’d probably describe it as “melancholic” or “meditative” but I wouldn’t argue with Bedell’s “elegiac”. Here is an early description as Jim arrives in Nebraska from the greener, more lush Virginia:

Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.

Lovely, simple, spare writing.

And I love Cather’s description of pioneer life, and pioneer characters. Much of what she writes could easily apply to 19th century Australia. The landscape is different – but is similarly bare and harsh – and the ethic mix is different – but the experiences and hardship are universal. It’s a life and environment in which character is writ large – and Cather draws her characters beautifully. Even the minor ones – such as farm hands Jake and Otto who disappear early in the novel – are vivid. Here is Jim on Ántonia, late in the novel:

She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things.

This is one of those novels that stays with you and I’d recommend it to anyone. Would I recommend this eNotated edition? Yes. It’s a good attempt to take advantage of the eBook format and, while there are features that didn’t  work perfectly for me, at USD5.99, it’s hard to beat.

Willa Cather
The eNotated My Ántonia
eNotated by Barbara Bedell
eNotated Classics, V1.00 12/1/2011 (based on 1918 edition)
Kindle edition
ISBN: 9780982744864

(Review copy supplied by eNotatedClassics.com)

Gillian Mears, Foal’s bread (Review)

Gillian Mears' Foal's bread

Foal's bread cover (Courtesy: Allen & Unwin)

Foal’s bread is Gillian Mears’ first novel in around 16 years, though she has published short stories in the interim. This is a shame because she is a beautiful writer, particularly when she writes about the place she knows best, the farms of the New South Wales north coast.

Foal’s bread is about the Nancarrow family. Most of it takes place between 1926 and around 1950, as it follows the fortunes of Noah (Noey/Noh), her husband Roley (Rowley), and the extended family with which they live. Their main business is dairying, but their passion is the sport of horse high jumping. At the beginning of the novel, Roley is an Australian high jump champion and Noey a young 14 year-old girl with promise. They meet, marry (early in the novel, so no spoilers here) and start working hard to achieve their dream of having their own high jumping team. Hope on, Hope ever, is their motto. That’s the broad plot; the story is far more complex.

This is an archetypal story of strong country people coping (or not) with “luckiness and unluckiness” in life. In its depiction of hardship, stoicism and the will to survive in rural families, it reminded me – in tone if not in story – of Geoff Page’s The scarringThe hardship may come from different quarters, but in both there is a sense of forces out of one’s control combining with things of the characters’ own making. That mix – of characters’ judgement or behaviour clashing with luck (usually bad) – tends to make for a good story, in the right hands. It’s a bit Shakespearean in a way, the clash of character with “the elements”.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 Badge

Australian Women Writers Challenge (Design: Book'dout - Shelleyrae)

In Foal’s bread, the “bad luck” has many sources, some human and some natural, such as incest, lightning strikes, giving birth to a disabled child, war and drought. How the characters cope with the trials confronting them is the core of the novel. Unfortunately, more often than not, they don’t cope very well. Why? Mainly due to their very human failings. Noey and Roley, whose marriage commences with great love and big dreams, don’t know how to communicate when calamity hits. Noey’s mother-in-law, Minna, lets her jealousy (“of the happiness she’d never seen before”) get the better of her and prefers to increase the tension between her son and his wife rather than to ameliorate it.

By now you’ll be thinking this sounds like a miserable story, and in some ways it is. But it’s not all darkness. While the novel has an almost elegiac tone, its movement is towards light. It has a three-part structure. There’s a very short Preamble which sets a tone of harshness and brutality with its references to incest, bushfires, floods, and animal cruelty.”Watch out you don’t cry” we are warned. Then there is the bulk of the novel in which the story of Noey and Roley is played out. This is followed by a Coda, set some 50 years later, in which we learn that “the old voices remain … funny, flinty, relentless”. These voices are carried into the future by Lainey, the strong, resourceful daughter of Roley and Noey, “her mother’s daughter through and through”.

A strong story, but what gives this novel its real power is the writing. Mears mixes the rough, ungrammatical country-speak of the era with glorious, rhythmical language describing the magpies, butcherbirds, trees, creeks and hills of One Tree Farm. The “one tree” is a jacaranda, and it features throughout the novel. It could almost be, dare I say it, a character. Early in the novel, when all is full of hope, it quivers “to create the feeling of a big bosomed woman wanting to waltz”. Later, as things start to collapse, it loses its leaves, but at the end “the old tree lives on … like a huge purple cloud hiding the rooflines”.

And then, of course, there are the horses. Reading this book reminded me a little of reading Tim Winton’s Breath. Mears does for horse high-jumping what Winton did for surfing. She made me feel the joy and beauty of the jump, of pushing oneself to achieve just that little bit more in a risky sport, of having a dream that keeps you going, of doing “the impossible”. Mears, like Winton, knows her subject inside out, and you feel it in her writing.

I fear I haven’t done the book justice. I’ve not really described its complex plot. I’ve named only a few of its large cast of colourful characters. It’s an ambitious book with big themes and a big style. Not everyone loves it. Some find the dialogue tricky or some descriptions overdone; some think the ending is disappointing; some think it’s stereotypical in places. I think none of these things. I’d love to know what you – if you’ve read it – think!

Gillian Mears
Foal’s bread
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2011
370pp.
ISBN: 9781742376295

(Uncorrected proof copy received from Lisa of ANZLitLovers in a blog giveaway)

Elizabeth Jolley, Diary of a weekend farmer

Elizabeth Jolley's Diary of a weekend farmer

Bookcover (Image courtesy Fremantle Arts Centre Press)

I took 2 valium and went to bed early (Monday 12th October, 1970)

Elizabeth Jolley’s Diary of a weekend farmer is one quirky memoir (if you can call it that). And yet it is, really, exactly what you might expect from a writer who rarely wrote the expected!

It is a slim volume – illustrated with warm, shimmery paintings by West Australian artist, Evelyn Kotai. The diary entries were written by Jolley at irregular intervals from 1970 to 1974 (probably), and are accompanied by poems by Jolley, plus the occasional contribution from her husband Leonard and daughter Ruth. Some of the entries are reflective

… being on this piece of land makes me feel very much aware of the shortness of life, I mean our human life in comparison with the land and the big old trees. (from Monday 6th [September, 1971] continued)

while others are factual

Ruth and I tried to plant tomatoes ground too dry and hard. (from 10th November 1970)

As you can see, little care (or perhaps a lot of care – how are we to know?) is taken with punctuation.

Jolley’s trademark wry, or even wicked, comments are in evidence

Next door’s place has been well cleared and conquered I think the word should be … (from 11th November 1970)

There is, in fact, a tiny plot running through the book and it has to do with the “neighbour woman”. She appears regularly as a rather ambiguous presence who doesn’t respect Elizabeth and her city-slicking family, and their farming endeavours, but offers some useful advice at times. Much of this “plot” is carried though a poem (“Neighbour Woman on the Fencing Wire”) which continues in sections throughout the book:

I suppose you didn’t notice last Sunday evening
you left your rake and mattock out and
(from “Continuation from the Fencing Wire”)

This woman is a little thorn in Jolley’s side – always pointing our her failings – and yet at the end, Jolley’s underlying compassion becomes evident as she writes of the “neighbour woman’s death” and her husband’s grief:

… and I understood I was face to face with someone who really loved the neighbour woman and that he would never get over something that is brushed aside in the word bereavement. (from No date required)

But, what this little volume particularly shows is her love of the land – along with her recognition of its challenges. Here’s one example:

It is an alien place resisting or is it retreating from all our human endeavour. And then the doves fly up glowing in the rising sun and the sound from their wings is like a tiny clapping. (from Monday 25th February, 1973).

There is a very Jolley-esque tension here between an almost mystical beauty and a power that is not always benign.

And here is a reference to gums and their widow-making capability:

The wind moves the trees great branches fall
In the wind or in the stillness
A few feet nearer and I should have been crushed
Into the greater stillness.
(from “Great Branches Fall”)

These diary entries were made before her first book, Five acre virgin, and other stories, was published in 1976, though she’d had individual short  stories published from the 1960s on. When I read memoirs by writers, I look (of course) for references to writing. There is not much here, though. Besides the mention of something her husband said as being “a very good 1st sentence”, the main reference to her writing is this:

I finished the story “Pear Tree Dance” for the BBC, an idyllic ending! The newspaper of Claremont Street contains the grim and sinister side of things. (from 19th August 1971)

She’s right about that. Newspaper is one of my favourites of hers but it is rather grim. It was not published until 1981 … and is about a woman who wanted her own piece of land. I think I’ll leave it here – and let you ponder that idea!

Elizabeth Jolley
Diary of a weekend farmer
South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993
ISBN: 1863680438
95pp

Katharine Susannah Prichard, The pioneers

 

Katharine Susannah Prichard

Prichard, 1927/8, by May Moore (Courtesy: State Library of NSW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) is probably not as well-known in Australia, let alone internationally, as she should be. She was born in Fiji, but grew up in Tasmania and Melbourne, travelled overseas and in other parts of Australia, before settling in Western Australia in 1919. She was a founding member of the Australian Communist Party (1920) and also of the Western Australian branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. Politics and literature, then, were the twin passions of her life. Her most famous novel and the only one I’d read until now, Coonardoo (1929), was remarkable in its time for its exploration of the relationship between white men and black women.

I don’t usually commence a review with a biography, but it felt appropriate in this case – partly because she is so little known despite her significance and partly because her politics were an intrinsic part of her literature. In the foreword to my new edition of the book, her granddaughter describes Prichard’s values as:

a huge love of and respect for the bush; the importance of living your life with integrity; of caring and fighting for the underdog; of holding strong principles and remaining true to them; and of embracing life with passion.

These values are evident in The pioneers, her first novel which won the Hodder and Stoughton All Empire Literature Prize for Australasia in 1915. She went on to write over thirty works, including novels, plays, short stories and poetry. But, perhaps that’s enough prelude for now – on with the book.

It’s a simple tale really, plot-wise. It starts with a couple, Donald and Mary Cameron, arriving by wagon in an unsettled area of Gippsland (in eastern Victoria) in the early-mid nineteenth century. They clear the land, build a home and establish a successful farm. Very early in the story, while Donald is away getting supplies, Mary is “visited” by two desperate men, Dan Farrell and Steve. A tricky situation for a woman on her own but she manages to win them over and they leave her, unharmed. The novel tells the story of these people – and the others who move into the district – over the next two decades or so, as they work to make lives for themselves, some honestly and some not so.  There are archetypal characters here – the hard-working, tough, taciturn farmer; the loving, but wise and stoical wife; the loyal but unappreciated-by-his-father son; and more. There are escaped convicts, cattle rustlers, and a thoroughly bad man.

This may all make it sound rather typical and a bit melodramatic. And, in fact, it does have its melodrama. But the book is more than this. Its overriding style, or approach, is social realism, as Prichard explores the hopes and wishes of a new country struggling to come to terms with its origins and forge a more positive future. Her style is not particularly innovative and, while the combination of social realism and melodrama is appropriate for a novel set in the nineteenth century, the melodrama was a little discordant to my modern ears.  Take this, for example:

It was as if that encounter in the valley of shadows had brushed all misunderstandings from the love that was like the sun between them. Deirdre had wrestled with death for possession of him.

A contemporary review suggested that the romance – which drives most of the melodrama – was included primarily to attract readers who may not be interested in the history. This could very well be so.

Despite not being particularly innovative, Prichard’s writing is sure and shows that while this was her first novel she’d been honing her craft for some time. I particularly loved her language. It is gorgeously descriptive. She perfectly captures the paradox of a place that is both beautiful and harsh – and effectively conveys the physical and emotional impact of the landscape:

The bright hours were rent by the momentary screeching and chatter of parroquets, as they flew, spreading the red, green and yellow of their breasts against the blue sky. At sunset and dawn there were merry melodious flutings, long, sweet, mating-calls, carollings and bursts of husky, gnomish laughter. Yet the silence remained, hovering and swallowing insatiably every sound.

The plot, as I’ve suggested, is a little melodramatic and fairly predictable but it’s a well-told tale, nonetheless, of good forces fighting bad, of compromises that are sometimes made, and of bad judgement calls that come back to bite you. The characters, while tending to archetype, are nonetheless real so that you believe them and their various plights. There is, I think, something reminiscent of Dickens here.

The themes reflect very much the values identified by her granddaughter in the foreword. The main characters are imbued with a strong sense of principles that they try to live by. When Mary meets the convicts early in the novel, she says:

But if you will believe the truth it is this: My heart is with you and all like you.

In her twenties, Prichard apparently met the Austrian sociologist, Rudolph Broda, who introduced her to the ideas of socialism and suggested that, as a new country, Australia was leading the world in social legislation. This idea is reflected in the novel. Early on, Mary says to Donald:

It’s a new country and a new people we’re making, they said at home, and I’m realising what they meant now.

Little did she know, then, what this “making” would really involve but defining “a new country” is clearly the goal Prichard set for herself. The novel concludes by suggesting that the new generation will

be a pioneer of paths that will make the world a better, happier place for everyone to live in.

Corny? Or aspirational? Take your pick … but whichever way you see it, this novel makes a significant contribution to the development of the Australian psyche, to our transition from colonial convict-fearing past to an independent self-realised future. I am glad it has been re-released and hope that more people read it.

Katharine Susannah Prichard
The pioneers
Singapore: Monsoon Books, 2010 [first ed. 1915]
272pp.
ISBN: 9789810848804

NOTE: An ebook version of the novel is available at Project Gutenberg.

Kate Jennings, Snake

Murrumbidgee River

Murrumbidgee River in the Riverina (Courtesy: Mattinbgn, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

In her “fragmented autobiography”, Trouble, Kate Jennings used excerpts from her first novel, Snake, to convey her childhood experience of growing up on a farm in the Riverina region of New South Wales. She had, she wrote, an “unhappy mother, diffident father”. Snake is the story of such a mother and father. While the novel is not totally “true” to her life in the factual sense, I have read enough novels and memoirs (such as Jill Ker Conway‘s The road from Coorain) about rural Australian life to know that it is “true” to the sort of experience it describes.

The blurbs on the back of my edition include the following descriptions: “a string of prose poems” (Times Literary Supplement) and a “domestic dystopia” (Sydney Morning Herald). The novel – novella in fact – is intriguingly structured. It has 4 parts. Parts 1 and 4 are short bookends, told in second person: the first part is addressed to the father and the last to the mother. The middle two parts are told in the more traditional third person voice and chronicle the life of the family: Rex the ironically named father, Irene the mother, and Girlie and Boy, the children who are caught in the middle. The chapters are short, some being only a paragraph or two long, and present vignettes of the family’s life rather than a simple this-then-that chronology. Dystopian is, unfortunately, an accurate description of their life. As Daphne, Irene’s sister, guesses on the wedding day,

Rex was a nice enough chap but about as interesting as a month of rainy Sundays. Irene will be bored with him before they arrive at the Blue Mountains guesthouse for their honeymoon.

While we never hear from Daphne again, she was not wrong. Rex is a “good man”, “decent”, a farmer of simple needs, while Irene, as her father realises, “dances to a tune no one else hears”. Not a likely recipe for success.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Despite its unusual mix of voice and rather episodic form, it has a strong narrative that drives us on to its inevitable (but no spoiler here) conclusion. The snake motif runs through the book. Snakes are a fact of rural Australian life and so are a natural, real presence in the book, but their symbolic allusion to temptation, deceit and danger lurks behind every reference. Early in the novel, we are told of Irene’s youthful romantic tendencies – her love of

… smoky-voiced singers and innuendo-laced lyrics. Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee, they were the snake charmers and Irene the snake.

Later, Girlie looks at snakes in a book on Australian fauna: they are “fanged, flickering, unblinking”.

Kate Jennings is a poet – as well as novelist and essayist – and it shows. The language is accessible but full of imagery. This is particularly apparent in the chapter titles, most of which are obvious in meaning, though some are more cryptic: “Home is the first and final poem”, “Send my roots rain” and “My mother has grown to an enormous height”. They are fun to think about as you read. There are some beautifully apposite descriptions. Here for example is Rex experiencing misgivings about his new wife:

The sight of her caused his nature – practical, honourable – to assert itself … What was done was done. Without being conscious of it, he coughed importantly – I am a man, I have a wife – and squirmed inside the jacket of his uniform until it sat better on his shoulders.

And here is Girlie reading:

Girlie read books like a caterpillar eating its way through the leaves on a tree.

Their town is, ironically, called Progress. However, very little “progress” occurs in the book. Rex struggles to keep the farm going in the face of mice and locust plagues, hail and dust storms. Irene tries to make a life that suits her romantic, imaginative spirit – she creates a garden, seeks friendships with interesting people, looks for work – but in the end nothing works:

Rex and Irene had given up arguing. He no longer bothered to tell her that he wasn’t asking much – harvest his crops, care for his animals, share it all with a good woman, tra-la – and Irene didn’t reply that far from not asking much, he was asking everything.

Such is the life of a mismatched couple. We’ve read of such couples before, and we will again, but for a clear-eyed, finely balanced, while also touching, portrayal, this one by Kate Jennings is hard to beat.

Kate Jennings
Snake
Sydney: Picador, 2003 (first pub. 1996)
153pp.
ISBN: 9780330364003